PUTTING THE SUPER IN THE MARVEL HEROES

December 10, 2017

 

  Kathryn Robson would not call herself a superhero fan. She’s never really been into comic books either. She admits to having read an Archie comic or two when she was a girl. It’s ironic that she found herself editing productions by the biggest name in comic book superheroes and blockbuster films, Marvel. Like so many other viewers not well-versed in comic book fandom, Marvel’s first venture into the film world, Iron Man, was also her first window into the Marvel universe (though she enjoyed its political and economic themes more than its big blockbuster special effects).  She has since been immersed in the characters and stories that populate the Marvel world not as a result of viewing these films but rather through her role as editor on a series of documentaries about the creators, the company, and the characters that have come to dominate the entertainment landscape.

  What Robson learned and helped communicate through her work on the Marvel documentaries is that the history of how the Marvel stories and characters came together are often as intriguing than the comic book tales themselves. She explains, “There are so many interesting stories behind the stories. Marvel’s first character, Captain America, was a deliberate attempt by his Jewish-American creators to generate support for US involvement in WWII. They heard what was happening to their friends and family in the Holocaust and this was their effort to turn the tide against US isolationism. It was really effective and a pretty profound principle upon which to start a comic book company!”

  It wasn’t the nerdy aspiration of a brass ring that led to Robson working on “Marvel 75 Years: From Pulp to Pop” …in fact, it was quite the opposite. Editing can be as much about noticing what’s not present as much as what is. As she explains, “It’s about understanding the director and producer’s desired vision and being able to complement that”.

It wasn’t Robson’s technical skill alone that explains why she was enlisted to work on this project.  There were other factors which guaranteed she was the ideal person for the position. Marvel’s history spans back to the WWII era. Her extensive knowledge of American, European and WWII history, American isolationism, the Jewish diaspora, and broader cultural theory was essential in telling the story of Marvel’s initial rise and evolution as a comic company focused on reflecting existing social trends and dynamics. Robson has a long background in analyzing the reflexive and refractive relationship between popular culture and social politics. Among other duties, Robson edited preliminary versions of the story sequence and put together graphics composition on several acts of the project; most notably “Act II – The Founding of Marvel & WWII”, and “ ACT IV – Ironman Movie and the Ascendance of Marvel”, in addition to providing story, editorial, graphics, and music selection. She concedes that she took delight in editing interviews by iconic Marvel names like Jim Steranko (whose stories merit their own documentary), Pete Sanderson (a veritable encyclopedia on comic books), and the ubiquitous Stan Lee, who has himself become a piece of living pop culture.

  Producer Matthew Perniciaro was so impressed by Robson’s editing on “Marvel 75 Years: From Pulp to Pop” that he asked her to assume the duties on the follow up “Marvel’s Captain America: 75 Heroic Years.” Perniciaro remarks, “Kath was an integral part of the Marvel 75 project and I was really excited to get her back for Captain America. We’d worked on a number of projects together by this point, so I knew she understood the Marvel world; both the fictitious world within Marvel’s stories and the processes and best practices for working with a client like Marvel. She has a real sensitivity for the personal stories of Cap’s creators (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) and how that factored into the character.  She has a knack for connecting pop culture to bigger social issues, which is exactly what we needed for this project.  She really understood and I think you can see that in the doc.”

    Robson’s intention through her editing on this documentary was to elicit the same sentimentality, heroic, and epic feelings as “Cap” himself. The origin, the setting, and the emotions of Captain America’s story are as big and cinematic as any modern day feature film in which the character has been portrayed. Robson shrewdly bridged the gap of his early comic book days and the contemporary film adaptations with a clever approach. She tells, “We made really good use of the Captain America films, that a wide audience is familiar with, and tied those into motion-graphic panels of the comics.  Animating comic panels is a really fun part of getting to work on these projects. I’ll take a static panel and put some temp motion effects on it in a way that highlights either the specific story beat we’re trying to get at, or a feeling. For example, the first big reveal of Cap in the ‘Captain America was born’ section was a lot of fun. I got to tease out the various military elements in the panel, revealing only isolated portions of Cap, like his shield, and culminating in a final epic reveal of Cap in the full panel shot. It’s exciting to get the final shots back from motion graphics and see your vision so beautifully executed. The motion graphics team was extremely talented.”

  Captain America is unique in the comic book world in both that his character was created to inspire society during a crucial time in world history and his inherent national ties. The character was more than fiction, he was the embodiment of a movement. Marvel used the actual events of the day to inform their storylines. Robson inserted archival footage of Hitler’s rallies and heartbreaking scenes from the Holocaust to explain the vital necessity for a character like Cap at that moment in history. The first issue of “Captain America” shows him punching Hitler in the face. In modern times this may appear innocuous but it was quite sensational at the time. The aforementioned archival footage was used to connect the “make-believe” elements of the early Captain America comics with what was really happening in the world at that time. It simultaneously creates a sense of history for the audience and also places them there, reminding them that this archival footage was once simply the evening news. Just as importantly, it gives context to the idea that artists have a responsibility to express their ideas about political and social events; time has proven this to be true.

Robson also had the opportunity to explore the topic of gender in the comic book world as editor for “The Mighty Captain Marvel.” Robson was able to employ her academic background of feminist theory in cultural studies, as Margaret Stohl (the series writer) and Sana Amanat (the series editor) explicitly wanted to explore the themes of being both a woman and a hero in Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Robson’s master thesis was focused on exploring feminist themes). Even for a storyline which possesses such a positive message, there’s no escaping some of the vitriol on social media. This was the first time in Robson’s career that her work had been directly criticized for its content. Multiple “anti-feminist” comments were left about the feminist perspective and tone of this strong female character (Captain Marvel is viewable on Marvel’s YouTube channel). While it left a “sting”,  this attention also welcomed the editor and the creative team behind Captain Marvel into a very timely social conversation.

 

  Current day pop culture has made a complete 180 resulting in everything that was once “nerdy” now being cool. Superheroes, video games, Science Fiction, and the like are openly and fully embraced. There’s no doubt that the Science and Tech industry’s ability to become a common trait of everyone’s life on the planet has careened popular view of these more cerebral endeavors to a much more attractive place. In a similar manner, Robson’s affinity for documentary productions like those of Marvel and other subjects has grown in the past two decades. Multiple cable channels and streaming services have vetted documentaries as a beloved genre by the public. Robson is able to take her love of documentaries and her skill as an editor and apply it to any subject. This diversity is what keeps her continually interested. She describes, “When I’m editing, it often feels like the story and the material is revealing itself to me rather than me artificially constructing it. The story is there. It’s my job to look through the material and discover the essence of the story; which parts of it will really reach people and resonate with them in a kind of transformational way and then decide which elements and pieces (music, sound effects, graphics, photographs) are going to best tell that story. In the course of this work, I really get sucked into the world that I’m trying to tell the story about. There’s something both intensely emotional about the experience and also deeply meditative. I often find myself experiencing the emotions of those in the footage who are telling a funny or moving story. When I find myself in these moments, filled with laughter or tears…that’s how I know that this is a powerful moment that needs to be included.”

 

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